As the march of progress of robotics and artificial intelligence continues on, it seems that questions of the effects of this progress will only increase in number and intensity. Some of these questions are very good. What effect will AI have on employment? What safeguards should be put in place to neuter AI and robotics and keep humankind the masters in this relationship? These are questions soon to break through the topsoil of science fiction and into the sunlight of reality and we should all be prepared with answers to them.
Other questions are less useful and, honestly, far easier to answer. One that continues to pop up every now and again is whether machines and AI that manage some simulacrum of creativity should be afforded copyright rights. It's a question we've answered before, but which keeps being asked aloud with far too much sincerity.
This isn't just an academic question. AI is already being used to generate works in music, journalism and gaming, and these works could in theory be deemed free of copyright because they are not created by a human author. This would mean they could be freely used and reused by anyone and that would be bad news for the companies selling them. Imagine you invest millions in a system that generates music for video games, only to find that music isn't protected by law and can be used without payment by anyone in the world.
Unlike with earlier computer-generated works of art, machine learning software generates truly creative works without human input or intervention. AI is not just a tool. While humans program the algorithms, the decision making – the creative spark – comes almost entirely from the machine.
Let's get the easy part out of the way: the culminating sentence in the quote above is not true. The creative spark is not the artistic output. Rather, the creative spark has always been known as the need to create in the first place. This isn't a trivial quibble, either, as it factors into the simple but important reasoning for why AI and machines should certainly not receive copyright rights on their output.
That reasoning is the purpose of copyright law itself. Far too many see copyright as a reward system for those that create art rather than what it actually was meant to be: a boon to an artist to compensate for that artist to create more art for the benefit of the public as a whole. Artificial intelligence, however far progressed, desires only what it is programmed to desire. In whatever hierarchy of needs an AI might have, profit via copyright would factor either laughably low or not at all into its future actions. Future actions of the artist, conversely, are the only item on the agenda for copyright's purpose. If receiving a copyright wouldn't spur AI to create more art beneficial to the public, then copyright ought not to be granted.
To be fair to the Phys.org link above, it ultimately reaches the same conclusion.
The most sensible move seems to follow those countries that grant copyright to the person who made the AI's operation possible, with the UK's model looking like the most efficient. This will ensure companies keep investing in the technology, safe in the knowledge they will reap the benefits. What happens when we start seriously debating whether computers should be given the status and rights of people is a whole other story.
Except for two things. First, seriously debating the rights of computers compared with people is exactly what the post is doing by giving oxygen to the question of whether computers ought to get one of those rights in copyright benefits. Second, the EU's method isn't without flaw, either. Again, we're talking about the purpose being the ultimate benefit to the public in the form of more artistic output, but the EU's way of doing things divorces artistic creation from copyright. Instead, it awards copyright to the creator of the creator, which might spur more output of more AI creators, but how diverse of an artistic output is the public going to receive from an army of AI? We might be able to have a legitimate argument here, but there is a far simpler solution.
Machines don't get copyright, nor do their creators. Art made by enslaved AI is art to be enjoyed by all.